What’s the safest sleeping position for babies? What steps can help women achieve healthy pregnancies? What’s the latest word on NIH’s Zika-related pregnancy initiatives? Dr. Catherine Spong, acting director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), shares the answers with NIH MedlinePlus magazine.
What is the latest research on pregnancy and parenting?
Full-Term Pregnancy: We used to think that outcomes for babies were the same if they were born any time between 37 weeks and 40 weeks of pregnancy—once called “term.” But research has shown that babies born at 39 weeks or 40 weeks of pregnancy are healthier than babies born at 37 or 38 weeks.
Safe Infant Sleep: Always placing babies on their backs to sleep, for naps and at night, is one way parents and caregivers can greatly reduce baby’s risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and other sleep-related causes of infant death.
Research shows that babies who are used to sleeping on their backs, but who are then placed to sleep on their stomachs or sides—even for just a nap—are at very high risk for SIDS. Anyone who cares for baby—babysitters, childcare providers, and grandparents—should learn safe sleep strategies.
What research-proven steps should women take to avoid problems during pregnancy?
Get early and regular prenatal care while you’re pregnant. Your health care provider will probably talk to you about the following steps you can take:
- Take 400 micrograms of folic acid to help prevent spina bifida and other problems that can affect how the fetal brain and spinal cord develop.
- Maintain a healthy weight and safe diet. These can prevent gestational diabetes, a type of diabetes that only pregnant women get. Research suggests that what a woman eats and how active she is before she gets pregnant affect her risk. Gestational diabetes may cause both short- and long-term health risks for mom and baby.
- Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana, as all can cause problems. In some cases, these can lead to stillbirth, which is death of the fetus after 20 weeks of pregnancy. In other cases, babies bear long-term effects in the form of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and asthma.
- Avoid toxic substances and discuss your medications with your health care provider.
- Limit caffeine. Even though we don’t yet know the full effects of caffeine, it’s best to limit its use.
- Get regular dental checkups. There may be a link between oral disease and preterm and low birthweight in pregnancy.
What about the latest Zika-related pregnancy initiatives and warnings?
NICHD, together with other institutes at NIH, announced support earlier this year to review research to explore the effects of Zika virus infection on pregnancy and babies. NIH has funded several studies as a result, including an NICHD-supported study that monitored potential Zika virus exposure among athletes, coaches, and others attending the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil.
NIH also launched the Zika in Infants and Pregnancy (ZIP) study, working with the Brazilian Ministry of Health. The study will evaluate the health risks that Zika virus poses to pregnant women and their babies.
What about mental health issues and pregnancy?
Historically, much of the research has been on depression that occurs after the birth of a baby. But we know now that some women have depression and anxiety, as well as other mental health conditions, during pregnancy and after the baby is born.
NICHD designed the Moms’ Mental Health Matters initiative to help explain who is at risk, the signs of these problems, and how to get help.
NICHD supports research on maternal mental health, which covers a number of areas, including:
- Postpartum depression and how it affects maternal and infant health
- Ways to treat or prevent depression during or after pregnancy
- Biology of maternal mood disorders, anxiety, and stress, and how they may affect pregnancy and outcomes
For Future Moms & Dads The Facts on Healthy Pregnancy
All pregnancies are different. If you have questions about how the facts outlined below affect you, talk with your health care provider.
Myth: I’m eating for two.
Fact: Pregnant women only need about 300 extra calories per day. Gaining too much weight during pregnancy increases the risk for short- and long-term health problems for both mom and baby.
Myth: I can have an occasional alcoholic drink during pregnancy without harming my baby.
Fact: There is no known “safe” level of alcohol intake for pregnant women. Even less than one drink per week can lead to serious birth defects. Drinking alcohol also increases the risk for learning and growth problems and for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Avoiding alcohol altogether is the best way to keep baby safe.
Myth: I can’t take medications while I’m pregnant.
Fact: Many medications can be used during pregnancy, even though some medications and nutritional supplements should be avoided during pregnancy. It’s best to talk with your health care provider.
Myth: I shouldn’t get a flu shot while I’m pregnant.
Fact: Actually, a flu shot is more important for pregnant women than for non-pregnant women. The flu can cause severe illness and pregnancy problems for mom and increase the risk of serious health problems for baby. Getting a flu shot during pregnancy is a safe and effective way to protect yourself and your baby.
Myth: Pregnancy is nine months, so babies can be born any time after 36 weeks of pregnancy.
Fact: A healthy pregnancy usually lasts about 40 weeks, close to 10 months. Research shows that babies born at or after 39 weeks of pregnancy are, on average, healthier than babies born at 37 or 38 weeks.
Find Out More
- Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD) Human Placenta Project: go.usa.gov/xDhym
- NICHD Promoting a Healthy Pregnancy: go.usa.gov/xDhyA
- NICHD Know Your Terms: go.usa.gov/xDhyJ
- NICHD Moms’ Mental Health Matters: go.usa.gov/xDhVB
- Growing up After Zika Infographic: bit.ly/2bUPxRH
- MedlinePlus: Pregnancy medlineplus.gov/pregnancy.html
- Safe to Sleep®: go.usa.gov/xDhVY